Textual Plurality and Biblical Interpretation

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syrian Christianity.

BibleThis article reflects upon considerations of textual plurality and biblical interpretation as found in Lucas Van Rompay’s “The Christian Syriac Tradition of Interpretation”, James Kugel’s Traditions of the Bible, and the pseudepigraphal Jubilees. In each of these works there are concerns with how biblical texts were to be understood and how communities argued these texts should be properly interpreted, though this is relatively unsurprising in an era preceding any sort of formal scriptural canon. By my reading of these perspectives, there were at least two motivations in tension with each other during this period: inexact textual plurality and the desire for exact biblical interpretation.

Lucas Van Rompay notes that Syriac biblical interpretation would have proceeded with the knowledge of “alternative reading” of any given text (614), that for any reading of a certain passage it was possible for a substantially different reading to exist. At the very least, Van Rompay seems to indicate that the existence of multiple linguistic groups and versions of the Biblical text (Peshitta, Syro-Hexapla, LXX, and Hebrew Bible) in the Syrian context formed a key component for the Syriac interpretive community. There are also scattered references to possible ‘oral traditions’ which are possible sources for additional voices to have influenced Syriac biblical interpretation.[1] Thus, Van Rompay argues that Syriac exegesis allowed a certain level of ‘flexibility’ in interpretation and application, based upon the plurality of possibly authoritative texts (615).

Ephrem the Syrian

Ephrem the Syrian

Later Van Rompay notes that Ephrem was “anxious that the reader should understand that everything did happen exactly as it is reported in the Bible” (623). This seems to suggest that Ephrem either a) had in mind a version of the Biblical text to which interpretation should follow, or b) the exactness of interpretation was situated more in broad messages that particular details. Given the plurality of possible sources, it would seem that Ephrem should have been concerned with general principles. This seems somewhat unlikely, however, given Kugel’s outline of interpretation which found explanatory value in even the slightest details of the biblical text (20-22). If Kugel’s points about the assumptions of biblical interpretation during this period (cryptic, relevant, harmonious, and inspired) hold true for Ephrem, this casts source plurality and the desire for precise interpretation into considerable tension.

This tension is further highlighted in applying Kugel’s principles of interpretation to the book of Jubilees, where the author’s divergences from the canonical text and demands for stringent obedience to the law are found side-by-side. Reading Jubilees is somewhat shocking, at least for someone relatively familiar with the contents of canonical Genesis and Exodus and an apocryphal work such as Enoch.[2] Part text and part exposition, significant portions of the text read as if they were part of canonical Genesis, other portions as minor modifications from the biblical record, and others as totally foreign to the standard Biblical accounts. How did readers negotiate between this account and that of now-canonical Genesis and Exodus (to say nothing of other texts)? And which interpretation of the Mosaic Law is to be followed? These do not seem vain questions in the context of post-exilic Israel.

Ancient Edessa

Ancient Edessa

In the end, Kugel’s point about how one reader’s scripture is another’s interpretation (29) must be emphasized, though this casts the relationship between text and interpretation into further tension. It would seem historically problematic, if not impossible, to locate a ‘stable’ text from which normative interpretation could occur in the early Syrian context. Instead, scripture seems to have taken a relatively fluid shape, with text and commentary mingling. While the concern for the plurality of texts was eventually solved in some contexts, the early period of Syriac Christianity was likely a place rife with competing scriptures and scriptural interpretations, most likely contributing to the apparent theological diversity found somewhere like Edessa and almost certainly providing future research opportunities.

In the consideration of the sources here, we must be careful not to presume that the hermeneutical attitudes of the second century BCE are necessarily to be reflected in the fourth century CE. Yet the interpreted milieu, at least as presented, seems very similar. Allowing for the possibility that time shifted the attitudes more than has been allowed for in this reflection, it seems that early Syriac exegesis proceeded holding in tension the plurality of scriptural sources and the desire to precisely interpret the biblical text.


[1] Though in appealing to ‘oral tradition’ we must be careful to not fall into the oft repeated trap of designating to oral tradition all which our contemporary textual records leaves unattested.

[2] Or at least the parts of Enoch that Darren Aronofsky found compelling enough to incorporate into Noah.

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